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Oblivion / If Every Girl Had a Diary / The Living End

The Living End
February 26, 2022 - 7:30 pm
In-person: 
filmmaker Gregg Araki in conversation with filmmaker Sean Baker.

Pictured above: The Living End (dir. Gregg Araki, 1992)


Restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, with funding through the Avant-Garde Masters program funded by The Film Foundation and administered by the National Film Preservation Foundation

Oblivion

1969

Between 1962 and 1989, rigorously formalist filmmaker Tom Chomont (deceased 2012) completed roughly 40 short film works, most of them silent. His 1969 16mm work Oblivion is a rapidly cut film full of repetition, superimpositions, jarring movements, and pulsating light that activate the viewer to contemplate the relationship between a sleeping man and the disorientating, erotically charged images that flare up in the frame. Combining high contrast black and white negative with a color positive of the same image, Chomont landed on a process he would repeat often to create his sublime, iconic superimpositions.

Chomont says of Oblivion, “While this material was highly personal, I was conscious from the beginning that there had to be a formal side. The experiences themselves had broader meanings of identity and role-playing and the face as a mask. I wanted to give the film the feeling of being between dreaming and awake.” In contrast to Warhol’s conceptual serial film Sleep (1964)—a six-hour loop of sleeping poet John Giorno, who claimed to get his creative inspiration from his dreams—Chomont’s poetic diary film is intensely personal yet equally elusive, seemingly pushing images outward from within. As a result of its aggressive formalism, it is invigoratingly compelling.

“After many years of trying to follow what I was taught,” says Chomont on the making of Oblivion, “I had a lot of very intense fantasies. During this time, I began to act out my fantasies, and, in doing so, the experience became more important than the fantasy. This all became part of the film.” If we think of Oblivion as an acting out of fantasy, how might we see its emblem in the form of the film as a repression of what is most important: the experience of the fantasy itself?

Chomont’s experimental fantasia of dreaming immerses viewers in a sensual tone poem akin to living in an electrifyingly sonic exploration of sexual acting-out while in a passive state of being. Chomont’s film encourages us to fantasize about its meanings without fully reconciling the subject with his sexual objectification.

John Trenz

16mm, color, silent, 6 min. Director: Tom Chomont.

If Every Girl Had a Diary

1990

Sadie Benning was 15 in Milwaukee in the late 1980s when a series of traumatic events—a friend was injured in a car accident, she witnessed a drive-by shooting—brought to the fore simmering existential questions that Benning had been wrestling with. Using a PixelVision toy video camera and everyday objects—albums, toys, magazines, handwriten notes, the television screen—Benning transformed a childhood bedroom into a production space for crafting intimate, performative explorations of gender identity, desire and the artist’s own coming-of-age as a young lesbian.

The visual artist and musician (Benning co-founded the band Le Tigre), who now identifies as transgender, described the imperative of the moment: “As a transgender queer youth without access at that time to images or language that affirmed my reality, I saw it as urgent to make my own images.” In Me and Rubyfruit (1990) Benning plays all the characters, in a lesbian romance illustrated by phone sex ads, set to “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.” In Jollies (1990), Benning reenacts with naked Barbies a history of youthful sexual experimentation with boys and girls until concluding “I was queer as can be.”

More confessional in style, If Every Girl Had a Diary operates as a meditation on both gender identity and the structures at play in Benning’s particular means of production. Over extreme close-ups and abstracted views of the filmmaker’s room, its soundtrack drifts between Benning’s whispered feelings and fantasies and traffic sounds coming through the window. As inside and outside play against each other, the filmmaker reveals, “I’ve been waiting for that day when I could walk the street and people would say, ‘There’s a dyke.’” It’s an imagined moment when a yearned for recognition and a feared judgement collapse into one that crystallizes the power of the spaces Benning creates on-screen and in reality as sites of formation, safety, longing and rage.

Paul Malcolm

Digital, b&w, 8 min. Director: Sadie Benning.

The Living End

1992

This third feature film by Gregg Araki (b. 1959), an early and prolific member of the New Queer Cinema movement of the late ’60s into the ’70s, has sometimes been referred to as a "gay Thelma and Louise.” In this raw, raucous and sometimes brutally violent road movie, there is also ample time given to mischievous, outrageous comedy that somehow holds its own in what is essentially both a love story and a final burst of nihilistic freedom in the age of AIDS. Shot with Araki’s then-largest budget of only $20,000, the film saw success on its festival run, where it was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

Luke, played by now-mixed martial artist Mike Dytri, is a sexy, restless and reckless drifter. When he joins up with Jon (Craig Gilmore, who would also star in Araki’s Totally Fucked Up), a young, relatively timid but cynical film critic, the two embark on a semi-surrealistic trip across a desolate stretch of America. Both Luke and Jon are gay and HIV positive, but neither shies away from an intense sexual connection: their motto for the trip is the double-entendre-implied “Fuck everything.”

The winner of the first-ever Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival for his feature, Kaboom (2010), Araki is widely recognized for the three films that followed The Living End, known now as his “Teen Apocalypse Trilogy” (Totally Fucked Up, 1993; The Doom Generation, 1995; and Nowhere, 1997), all of which feaure Generation X ennui and hazily-defined sexual identities. Ticking yet another Gen X box, Araki’s deep adoration of U.K. shoegaze music is worn on the sleeves of many of his films: The Living End is a nod to The Jesus and Mary Chain song of the same name, and his later feature, Nowhere, pays tribute to Oxford-born Ride’s debut 1990 album.

Bob Hawk and K.J. Relth-Miller

DCP, color, 92 min. Director: Gregg Araki. Screenwriter: Gregg Araki. With: Mike Dytri, Craig Gilmore, Mark Finch.